What is diabetes?
Diabetes, also known as diabetes mellitus, is a chronic health problem that affects the body’s ability to produce insulin or use the blood sugar (or blood glucose) effectively.
Blood sugar levels are regulated by a hormone called insulin which is produced by the beta cells of the pancreas. It helps glucose get into the cells where it’s needed.
Type 1 diabetes is a health condition in which your immune system destroys the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. So, they cannot produce any insulin. It usually occurs in children, teenagers and young people but can also develop at any age.
Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which cells become insensitive to insulin and cannot make use of the blood sugar effectively. As a result, blood glucose levels go up. It’s milder and more common than type 1, but can lead to serious complications in your eyes, nerves, kidney and heart. In type 2 diabetes, there are two connected problems: your cells respond poorly to insulin, so can’t make use of the blood sugar effectively. And sometimes your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin.
Gestational diabetes is a health condition which occurs in pregnant women. During pregnancy, sometimes the body becomes insulin resistant and so blood sugar levels rise. This type of diabetes usually goes away after birth.
There’s also a form of diabetes known as ‘Latent Autoimmune Diabetes of Adulthood’ (or LADA) which is sometimes informally called ‘diabetes 1.5’. This is currently classified as a form of type 1 diabetes, but shares similarities with type 2 – hence the ‘1.5’. Research is currently being undertaken to find out what seems to make it different from both type 1 and 2 diabetes.
Who gets diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes can affect anyone at any time, but type 2 diabetes is usually acquired later in life. You are more likely to get type 2 diabetes if you’re over 40 (or over 25 if you’re south Asian), have a family history of diabetes, or are overweight or obese.
Type 1 diabetes is thought to be caused by an autoimmune reaction that destroys the cells in the pancreas that make insulin, called beta cells. This process can go on for months or years before any symptoms appear. Some people have certain genes that make them more likely to develop type 1 diabetes.
Gestational diabetes happens when your blood sugar gets too high during pregnancy, and your body can’t make enough insulin to regulate it. Like type 2 diabetes, you’re at a higher risk of getting gestational diabetes if you’re overweight or have a family history of diabetes.
How common is diabetes?
A 2016 study suggested that 9% of men and 7.9% of women worldwide could be diagnosed as having diabetes: a number that has risen by 28.5% since 1980. So, it’s common, and it’s on the rise. This is generally thought to be because the world’s population is getting older and heavier.
Type 2 diabetes is more common than type 1, with an estimated 90% of diabetes sufferers having type 2, but both are for life. But where type 1 is unavoidable, it’s possible to minimise the risk of getting type 2 diabetes by living a healthy lifestyle. This type is the main reason for diabetes becoming more common.
In the case of gestational diabetes, it’s estimated that 2%–10% of yearly pregnancies are affected by it.